in honor of…

A tribute of sorts to someone whose work I disagreed with entirely, but who I have to admit was a provocateur of the first order…Today’s discussion question in ARCH 517x:

“Given today’s news, it seems appropriate to consider Zaha Hadid’s architecture in relation to the course’s thesis. In particular, her powerful forms rarely coincided with any real structural or material logic, for which she’s been heavily criticized. But this argument could easily apply to many forms we’ve looked at today, in particular some of Candela’s more exuberant forms, or Saarinen’s or Utzon’s shells. Pick a structure by one of these three (Candela, Utzon, Saarinen) and compare and contrast the formal and structural rationales of these with those of your favorite Zaha building. Are there important philosophical differences–are the forms involved right, beautiful, true, and/or good? Or just geometrical and mathematical ones? How does the form of each example relate to the tools used to design it?”

rogelio salmona

One of the great joys of traveling and lecturing about building is discovering new heroes. Bogota has been a great crash course in local and regional traditions, and a whole city of case studies in how a global city has balanced those with international ideas.


The students and faculty who showed us around painted a pretty clear picture of postwar architecture in Colombia. Keen to show itself as a global city, Bogota’s architects adopted International Style modernism in several forms—glass curtain walls, a standard-issue 1950s SOM tower for the Banco de Bogota, and a whole slew of Corbusian concrete buildings with purely decorative brise-soleil (the city is equatorial, and the “sun breaker” for any building is really the roof—not much more is needed). Corbusier came here in 1947, beginning a decade-long relationship that resulted in a master plan that was never executed. But that relationship led to four Colombian architects working in Corbusier’s office, including the Paris-born Rogelio Salmona, whose family moved here while he was young. Educated at the National University, Salmona followed Corbusier back to Paris, where he worked for about ten years.


Salmona absorbed much from Corbusier, but he also looked around at other influences—historic Islamic architecture in Spain, but also very obviously to the north, and to Alvar Aalto. When he returned to finish his degree at the Universidad de los Andes in the early 1960s, he carried home with him a rich synthesis of ideas and attitudes that were condensed into his first major project, the Torres del Parque, a set of Aalto-inspired towers that wrap around Bogota’s historic bull ring and its early 20th century Planetarium while offering public staircases and plazas that extend a city park up one of the downtown area’s hills. We got to see it inside and out thanks to an accommodating faculty member and resident, and the scale of the towers and outdoor spaces together was brilliant. Salmona was obsessive about the long tradition of Colombian brickwork and about the newer utility of reinforced concrete, and he managed to draw out the textures and colors (the country’s brickwork is characteristically a distinct pale orange) in ways that make the entire complex feel like a series of intimate residential spaces.


Yesterday we spent the morning at the country’s national library, one of his last works completed in 2001. Its range of influences includes Aalto, Kahn, and Corbusier, but it also integrates a sensitive understanding of the city’s climate—spaces wander inside and out, the sun is always diffused through concrete roofs and vaults, and dark, cool spaces alternate with bright views outward toward the mountains. Around it, water makes for a consistent theme. Fountains bring you in the entrance alongside a lengthy channel (shaped with Salmona’s trademark gutter-profile bricks).



It’s a monument, but a graceful, subtle one that manages to be impressive and dignified (there was a graduation ceremony there for a University across town—quite a commitment given the city’s traffic) and yet utterly humane and often surprising. One student pointed out that the clerestories were cleverly proportioned so that patrons in the main reading room looking out would see one strip of nothing but grass, and another of nothing but sky, leaving the mountains for views from the indoor and outdoor circulation areas at the library’s perimeter. Amazing to see that level of experience designed into a complex building type.


Lunch yesterday on the terrace of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Cultural Center a few blocks from our hotel and from the Plaza Simon Bolivar, the country’s ceremonial center. Again, an uncanny sense for place—you see the towers of the Plaza’s Cathedral sticking up beyond a circular colonnade as you arrive at its level—and for construction, with brilliantly executed concrete detailed to diffuse light, to shade patrons from the overhead sun, and to define a ceremonial moment in a gloriously chaotic neighborhood.


Much more to read up on and to find out. But Salmona deserves more attention in the canon of both architectural history and of construction history—a gifted designer who achieved real fluency in local materials and built up a body of work that wears its influences frankly and gracefully.

IMG_1782North, that is, not centigrade…

I’ve been in Bogota, Colombia, this week as a guest of the Architecture faculty at the Universidad de los Andes, a gorgeous campus nestled into the foothills surrounding Bogota. Tom Peters and I were invited to lead a week’s worth of lectures and discussions with faculty and students about our work in Construction History, and the chance to talk about Chicago and Kahn, to see one of the world’s more fascinating cities, and to help make connections between north and south within the discipline made for a priceless week.


Bogota is amazing, and we were lucky to have a group of really thoughtful, engaging students show us some of the city’s monuments and neighborhoods this week. In particular, I’m now a huge fan of Rogelio Salmona, a heroic figure in postwar Colombian architecture—more on him later—but also fascinated by how a design culture very attuned to international movements has also inflected those ideas with local traditions and (especially) materials. Colombia, like Italy, has little in the way of steelmaking resources, so it’s been a center for concrete and brick production and both materials have strong traditions of design and craft. But it also has about as mild a climate as you can get—equatorial but some 2600m above sea level, which keeps things cool—so it’s an easy place to build with site and nature. And the setting of the city is inspiring, with 300-400m hills that butt up against the downtown and a range of mountains to the west and south that give the city a natural edge (and a foolproof wayfinding strategy…). The city has its problems, and no one showing us around glossed over the traffic or economic issues that you get when a city goes from 300,000 to 9 million over the course of a generation. But the students showing us around also talked about masterplans to reverse the city’s current sprawl (and the political reversals that’s faced), to densify its walkable central business district, and to build new infrastructure that’s long overdue at what everyone hopes will be the end of a debilitating, fifty-year long civil war.


So, it’s been a really enlightening, mind-expanding week. The talks themselves focused on how the program teaches architectural history—they combine essays and writing with hands-on drawing and modeling projects that show how technology, culture, and society have all influenced how buildings are constructed and why they’re constructed in the ways they are. This, as any ArchFarm reader will know, is heartwarming to me, since it gives students the opportunity to engage with just how complicated and rich building really is—and how it connects to a huge range of other fields, not just art history. I’ve let them know that I’m stealing plenty of their ideas in the coming semesters.

IMG_1699 (1)

Marc Jané i Mas, Camilo Villate Matiz, random Chicago scholar, and Construction History guru Tom Peters…

And it was an honor to share the stage with Tom Peters, whose Building the Nineteenth Century is to my mind still the best model for what Construction History is and what its potential impact can be. Tom’s lectures covered the prehistory of the Crystal Palace, a nice bit of exposition that showed how almost nothing in it was new, necessarily, except for its scale and the quantity of its production. This “algebra,” to use Ruskin’s perjorative term, was the outgrowth of several developments in iron, glass, and structural design, and his lecture concluded nicely just on the eve of 1851—a lecture about the building that explained it without even showing it. He also presented on current research on Chinese stone bridges, a good look at what he’s up to and theories about cultural preferences for ductility over rigidity. The other patrons in the hotel bar last night must have wondered what the hell was going on as we hashed out some of his conclusions…


I talked about Kahn and early Chicago, and also test-drove some new material about postwar Chicago—glad to have a friendly audience for this as it’s about 40% baked. It will go back into the oven for a while, but there was an unintentional resonance with local politics here and a series of mayors who have wielded infrastructural projects in the name of the city’s development…and just possibly political gain.

Hoping to come back soon. The University has a great program and is surrounded by art and engineering programs that are also doing amazing things—shared labs and maker spaces, all sorts of cross-disciplinary initiatives, and collaboration with some of the groups working to make Bogota work better.


A great few days last wee reviewing projects at Cal Poly and talking to this year’s docent class at the Chicago Architecture Foundation.  Anyone who knows me knows that those are two almost sacred places–both of them devoted to bringing art and science together in how people design and understand architecture.  The weather was a bit better in California (as was the wine tasting), but the welcome was much appreciated all around.

Figure 09

Explaining the complexity of the Monadnock to docents has been one of the happy goals of my participation in their education program.  It’s a good chance to talk about the stories that we tell about these buildings and the almost impossible richness that lies under the skin–literally.  So while it’s fine for the overview to talk about the building being “the last of the bearing wall skyscrapers,” I enjoy the chance to pull out this image and to talk about how it’s really a hybrid that incorporates brick piers, brick shear walls, steel columns, steel portal frames, structural masonry and cladding masonry, etc., etc.  And how John Root’s choices in detailing very cleverly make us read the building as bearing wall, but how in fact the bay windows (obviously, when you think about it) can’t possibly be bearing walls.

I’ve droned on about this aplenty before, but this time around one docent came up to me at the break and asked about those steel portal frames and why you’d need them.  Was it, he asked, so the building didn’t twist?  And the answer is–absolutely right.  In structures classes, we talk about the three ways buildings can fail.  They can 1) fall down (gravity loads), or 2) fall over (wind loads), or they can 3)…uh…rotationally pancake.  This latter failure is a failure in torsion, and it can happen if the structure has enough lateral resistance perpendicular to a wind (or seismic, or impact) load, but unequally distributed.


So, in the floor plate on the left, for instance, the shear walls are concentrated on one side of the structure, making that side much stronger than the other.  There might be enough shear resistance in those walls to keep the building from falling over, but the ‘weak arm’ of the building will deflect more, and as it spins around the center of resistance, the columns that hold it up will necessarily rack, while the shear walls will stay in roughly the same spot.  As the columns rack, the floor will have to drop at that end, and eventually the entire thing can twist and flatten.  The solution is to add shear resistance to make sure that the entire building has approximately the same resistance to wind, seismic, etc., across its floor plates, and the addition of a shear wall to the floor plate on the right does this.


In the Monadnock, the north end of the floor plate (for whatever reason, this seems stuck at the bottom of the image–sorry on behalf of WordPress’ editing software), probably for reasons of efficiency, doesn’t have a masonry shear wall like the south end of the original.  Instead, Burnham and Root designed a portal frame–basically a deep truss girder that fixes the angle between column and girder at 90°.  For this end of the building to rack, the wind is going to have to actually deform the steel column and girder.

There are, of course, other examples of torsion as a design problem nearby.  While most of the buildings along Dearborn–the most famous street in lateral resistance history–are symmetrical, there’s one that’s decidedly not symmetrical.  Inland Steel gains much of its lateral resistance in the east/west direction from its separated core, which is nudged to the southern end of its floor plate.  That leaves the north end as a potential weak story (not to mention a completely illegal fire exiting situation).  One of Fazlur Khan’s first tasks as a young engineer at SOM was to figure out how to distribute enough lateral resistance throughout Inland’s frame to keep the north end from twisting around its core.  His solution was to distribute much of the necessary lateral resistance among all of the building’s girder/column joints, in a connection called a torque box.  By welding additional plates in the interface between the column and girder, Khan was able to guarantee the 90° relationship between elements throughout the frame, making the north end stiff enough to deflect more or less in tune with the core to the south.


inland plan

A million thanks, as always, to Jennifer Masengarb and Hallie Rosen at CAF for inviting me and for organizing a great morning.  Always honored to be able to contribute to such a great program!

torque box

Model by Doug Conroy and Asa Westphal

clyfford still museum

IMG_1401A short weekend in Denver to (finally) see this–Allied Works’ Clyfford Still Museum, built to house the works of an underappreciated abstract expressionist painter and part of Denver’s cultural center.  The excuse was a show at the Denver Art Museum next door on Allied’s process work, which included study models of the Still Museum along with other work.  My partner spent a couple of formative years in their office, working on this project among others, so the trip included a guided tour.


I’m biased, obviously, but the Still Museum is up there with John Ronan’s Poetry Foundation in Chicago for must-see American buildings of the last ten years.  Allied’s work is as rigorous as it gets all the way through, from concept to detail, and the discipline and attention to experience throughout makes the experience truly immersive.  Still’s work fits nicely into the Allied approach, which involves a long, iterative process to arrive at a spatial diagram and then a similarly patient approach to detailing in ways that make that diagram tangible as you walk through the building.

In this case, the sectional diagram emerged quickly–a set of entry and conservation spaces on the ground floor, with toplit galleries above.  The plan diagram, though, went through a number of developments, finally settling around a more-or-less Renaissance nine-square grid, with circulation spaces running between square galleries.  The galleries themselves use a language of concrete and white plaster to reveal what’s structural (major grid lines) and what’s installation (minor grid lines).  And then the materials themselves are detailed through a set of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal grains that gives everything scale and consistency.  The concrete work is as good as it gets–the walls were all set in a single pour that went non-stop for a few days, so there aren’t any pour joints.  And the formwork is all board-form, with Kahn-like projections gained from beveled timber edges that give the concrete walls just enough texture and grain for the paintings to read against.

IMG_1509Where this gets really fun is where the grid lines intersect.  L spent a good amount of time working on options for the ‘knuckles’ around the center square, where concrete beams and walls intersect.  The geometry here is all about having us read the galleries as interlocking spaces, and the ‘knuckles’ go to great lengths to visually explain how the structural poche gets shared between one space and the next.


All of that sounds a bit abstruse, but it’s subtle enough that it doesn’t get in the way–it’s not a building that you’d need to know anything about to feel oriented in, or that you’d need to read up on to understand.  It’s a simple thing done extraordinarily well, though that simplicity came about–obvious from the models next door–only through that patient search that eliminates any distraction or contradiction.


DAM, Daniel

What’s most captivating about the Still Museum may be what it’s up against.  The Civic Center in Denver is home to the Denver Art Museum, a collection of buildings that includes a post-modern homage to Italian castles by Gio Ponti, and a shard-o-rama by Daniel Libeskind.  And, looming in the background, is Michael Graves’ Denver Public Library.  Taken together these buildings share…uh…a commitment to overtly formal rhetoric at the expense of spatial and material legibility.  The Libeskind in particular has the most spectacular drop-off in resolution between its form and detailing I’ve seen in a while (what happens when a complicated space without a straight line in any of its three dimensions meets a budget that allows for exactly a lay-in tile ceiling?).  To walk into a set of spaces as resolved in conception and in execution as the Still Museum after wandering through galleries that were clearly the afterthoughts of a really convincing 1/32″ model is to see the difference in two ways of thinking–architecture as a vehicle for formal argument vs. form as a vehicle for an orchestrated architectural experience.

That alone is worth a tripIMG_1408IMG_1406IMG_1516